Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hot topic: Questions to ask on school tours

An SF K Files visitor asked me to post the following:
It is just about that time to start touring public schools for my daughters entry into K next fall. I know how the lottery works etc, and I have a list of schools already want to tour, but I am wondering if any parents who have gone through the process could recommend any good questions to ask in order to get a good feel for the school, teachers and principal. Anything you are glad you asked? Anything you wish you had asked but did not?


  1. These were my favorite questions, if they are not answered in the canned presentation: (1) What makes your school different from other schools? (2) What do you think are your school's greatest strengths? (3) What would you most like to see changed/improved at your school? How might parents help accomplish this? (4) Do you have/would you enroll your child in this school? Why or why not? If you have elementary-aged kids and they go elsewhere, what led you to make that choice? (5) Where do I go to get information about available before- and after-care programs?

    Look up basic information before you go using the SFUSD web site and individual school web sites. That way you can avoid wasting your and other parents' time asking questions to which answers are readily available elsewhere.

    Remember that all schools have basically the same curriculum, including extra stuff for accelerated children. Asking, "Can you describe the curriculum?" is a time-waster. Asking "How will you handle my gifted child?" is kind of obnoxious. Also, don't ask about the food--it's pretty much all the same. If your child has a special need, remember that you have "first priority" in the lottery. Ask the district about which schools can best meet your needs and focus your attention on those schools.

    When I toured there was not much chance to interact with teachers because they were busy with the kids, though you could observe them in the classrooms. Generally you spoke with the principal and a PTA representative.

    Try not to tour more than one or two schools per week. After too many tours, they all start to sound the same.

  2. I asked quite a few principals what their priorities were for teacher development in the next few years. I found it quite interesting what they said. I have no idea if this reflected anything deep about the quality of the school, and priorities and principals change. Still, I enjoyed hearing the answers and some principals were definitely more thoughtful than others.

  3. Great topic; this is really helpful. I have some additional questions for experienced parents to answer: I see people all over this blog talking about the importance of a great principal, but I don't know enough about the job to understand how it matters (I mean, it's MUCH easier to understand the importance of the classroom teachers). Can someone please explain how a better or less good "fit" of a particular principal might affect my child's elementary school experience?

    Also, while I agree it seems obnoxious to ask about the care and handling of one's own gifted child, it is my understanding that the challenge posed by school diversity is that teachers must accommodate a broad range of baseline skills and abilities, and differentiated teaching (isn't that what it's called?) is a hard thing to do well. Is there any reasonable way to ask about how the different needs of different students are managed at a classroom level? Or am I totally off base? Does that first commenter's mention of "the same curriculum, including extra stuff for accelerated children" pretty much cover how this issue is handled everywhere?

    Finally, in other parts of this blog it's been made clear that a strong parent community makes a big difference. What's the best way to figure out about the parent community--do you just ask if there's an active PTA, or judge based on the amount of donations to the school (which says more about the parents' income level, probably, than about their cohesiveness as a community)? Can someone tell me how to assess this?

    Thanks for any and all guidance from experienced parents here. I'll be very interested to learn what I can from this set of comments.

  4. That's a good question re: PTA and parental involvement - So what about bluntly asking how much they raise? Or as you mention, is that merely a proxy for affluence? I'd think fundraising would be correlated with both parental affluence & involvement, so one could roughly factor out affluence if you used some sort of affluence tiers for all schools...